Over the last week I have been having a bit of a John Barry Fest – Out of Africa, The Raising of the Titanic, Born Free, Dances with Wolves and Dr. No. John Barry’s scores cover many genres but there is always a “Barryness” to his music and approach – organic, informed and well considered. His use of melody and theme (Out of Africa, Born Free) is as important as timbre and sound (The Raising of the Titanic, Bond).
Barry’s early musical experience was as a choirboy, pianist and trumpeter before becoming a band leader with the John Barry Seven and producer for Adam Faith (tipped at the time to become the English answer to Elvis). His insistence on conducting his own scores came from his view that the score should be conducted by the person who knew it best and, as such, knew where to cut or add a couple of seconds if needed in the recording session. He studied a jazz correspondence course with American jazz composer, Bill Russo when he was stationed in Cyprus with the British army, paid for with dollars bought in the local newsagent (“The Armenians will sell you anything”). Throughout his scores these eclectic influences come through in so many forms.
The most controversial topic that surrounds John Barry, however, tends to be the Bond scores, and the origination and development of the Bond theme that we all now know so well. It seems to me to be a fairly simple situation that has escalated over the years, not through anyone making false claims (though recollections may have become blurred at points), but through the implications and details over the exact conditions for the composition of the first Bond, Dr. No. Monty Norman composed the original Bond theme in his 1960 musical, A House for Mr Biswas.
The origin of the melody has never been under dispute, but the producers were not happy with the film score as a whole. John Barry, who had recorded Bee’s Knees with the John Barry Seven in 1958, was brought in around 1961 to re-work Norman’s theme and write additional music for the score. As far as I am aware, John Barry never tried to take undue credit for the theme (he was paid £125 and received no royalties for the theme), but I can see why some of his recollections of events may be interpreted in a derogatory way towards Monty Norman (this is really the issue at hand).
The Bond music has undoubtedly become one of the world’s most instantly recognisable sounds and has inspired decades of film music. The electric guitar alongside the brash orchestral playing style, the clashing harmonies (major 13 #5) and the tongue in cheek soaring string lines are now instantly associated with Bond. One could argue that the music is as vital a part of the Bond franchise as the plot and action scenes.
Both Monty Norman and John Barry brought their own ideas and voice to the Bond theme, and each deserves their rightful credit. I feel that the previous musical examples all display how the Bond sound came to be. John Barry was crucially considered an arranger of Monty Norman’s material, and this addresses the ongoing problem that arrangers have always faced (the arranger tends to receive no royalties whilst the composer receives them all), and this surely has added fuel to the fire over the years.
Listening to John Barry’s scores comes with the extra reward of watching a huge range of film styles and it has struck me how how much thought has gone into each aspect of each of these films, something that sometimes can now feel less focussed when skimming the thousands of films on Netflix or Amazon. The Bond music seems to me, to have provided Barry with a surface in which he could bring his eclectic influences together, and it gave him a base in which he could get away with serious music alongside an amusing campness, all in the name of satire. Monty Norman’s theme is a strong theme but it was undeniably translated by John Barry into the language of Bond.